This month I want to talk about a powerful, simple tool to use in our common life together: appreciation. This tool can work wonders in all situations. It can deepen an already warm and close relationship, and it can open channels of healing in situations of conflict.
J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard professor who specialized in group organization, spoke about conflict in groups in the PBS series, This Emotional Life. He gave some surprising advice: Move towards conflict rather than away from it. He believed it was not possible to avoid conflict, and have nice, smooth, harmonious group interaction all the time. Even if it were possible, he did not think it desirable. “It is in the conflict that we really capture the differences of perspective that is the reason for having a group in the first place.”
What is this hunger built into our very beings? This longing for something undefinable, a yearning that persists no matter what we eat or drink or buy or collect? No matter how close we get to others.
My view is that in a society which tends automatically to rank people, leadership in a spiritual community can serve to level the playing ground. Leaders can lovingly call forward those who shrink back, and just as lovingly invite those who find it easy to put themselves forward to a stance of humble listening. We want to honor all as equal members of the body. “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy.” (1 Cor 12:26)
Many people have expressed an interest in belonging to a small group, but do not know where to begin. In 2019, we are offering several cycles of 3-month discernment groups for people who want to explore the possibilities.
At the heart of everything I do is a desire for Presence. Presence to me means being utterly connected with what IS, with the larger reality, with Spirit, with God, the Divine, the Sacred. It means being completely present to each moment of life as it unfolds, letting go of my past perceptions, fears, and judgments, and being open to the vast and astonishing depth of the gift and lesson of this moment. With each moment, the gift and the lesson are new.
I began my ministry in small group development at St. Mary’s one year ago in December. This year of developing the framework for small group ministry has been one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life, and many of you have been part of that. As any of you who have come to a small group training know, I like to end my groups by asking each person to share their highlights of the gathering. I thought at the end of 2018, I would share a few of the many highlights of my first year.
Listening deeply is a way of creating a container so that another person’s soul can grow in this way. When we listen prayerfully to another person, we create a positive container that provides safety and encouragement. The container provides the energy and love God wants each of us to have. Within this nourishing container, the soul can wake up, stretch, and fly. The soul can find its purpose and move towards action in the world.
Leadership is an inherent human characteristic. The most basic definition of leader is someone who makes things go well around them. This means that if you are in any situation, no matter how simple, and you make something go well, you are leading. Let me give you some simple examples.
There are as many kinds of small groups as there are kinds of people, and humans look for ways to share in so many ways. I’ve often marveled how a group of strangers spontaneously searches for the things they have in common, even if they have to stretch in very odd ways. “I see you like potatoes.” And they can talk animatedly for some time about all their experiences with potatoes.
I have been speaking to people who have had life-giving experiences in small groups at church. I asked them why they liked being in a small group and why they would encourage others to do the same.
At St. Mary’s Episcopal Church we would like to have a small group available to anyone who would like one. Small groups are places where people practice listening to God and to each other. Small groups can provide safety and closeness that makes our community life together more meaningful. Sunday worship gains a whole new level of joy when you see your group members sitting in the pew opposite.